Friday, September 26, 2014

George Orwell: Essays

            There are several different editions of George Orwell’s essays floating around, so I suppose the first thing I should probably do is clarify which version I read.
            I read the volume published by Penguin Classics in 2000, under the title George Orwell: Essays with an introduction by Bernard Crick, following the editing done by Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus, and containing the following essays in the following order:
1. Why I Write
2. The Spike
3. A Hanging
4. Shooting an Elephant
5. Bookshop Memories
6. Marrakech
7. Charles Dickens
8. Boys’ Weeklies
9. Inside the Whale
10. My Country Right or Left
11. The Lion and the Unicorn
12. Wells, Hitler and the World State
13. The Art of Donald McGill
14. Rudyard Kipling
15. Looking Back on the Spanish War
16. W. B. Yeats
17. Poetry and the Microphone
18. In Defence of English Cooking
19. Benefit of Clergy: Some Notes on Salvador Dali
20. Raffles and Miss Blandish
21. Arthur Koestler
22. Antisemitism in Britain
23. In Defence of P. G. Wodehouse
24. Notes on Nationalism
25. Good Bad Books
26. The Sporting Spirit
27. Nonsense Poetry
28. The Prevention of Literature
29. Books v. Cigarettes
30. Decline of the English Murder
32. Politics and the English Language
33. A Good Word for the Vicar of Bray
34. Confessions of a Book Reviewer
35. Politics vs. Literature: An Examination of Gulliver’s Travels
36. How the Poor Die
37. Riding Down from Bangor
38. Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool
39. Such, Such Were the Joys
40. Writers and Leviathan
41. Reflections on Gandhi

            This is not the complete Orwell essays by any means.  (Orwell wrote regular columns and book reviews all throughout his life, and I’m told the complete accounting of all his essays runs to about 4 volumes.)  But the above list is most of his greatest hits.  Different editions of Orwell’s essays by different publishers may contain one or two different selections, but will mostly look very similar to the list above.

My History with George Orwell
          I’ve been calling myself a George Orwell fan now for quite some time, despite the fact that I’ve actually read very little by him.  (I’m working on remedying that.)  In my youth I have read Animal Farm, 1984, and Keep the Aspidistra Flying.  (All of which I read before I started this book review project, so no reviews online.  Although I did use Keep the Aspidistra Flying for one of my college English papers posted here, and I did post some thoughts on 1984 a few years ago here .)
            More recently, in 2011 I read and reviewed Homage to Catalonia. 

My History with These Essays
          So, no educated person gets through life without some exposure to George Orwell’s essays, right?  Even if you’ve never intentionally sought out a book of Orwell’s essays before, I suspect you recognize several of the above titles.
            A Hanging seemed very familiar to me, and although I don’t remember specifically when, I’m fairly sure I read it in school at one point.  I most definitely had to read Shooting an Elephant for one of my high school English classes.  Other essays, like Why I Write and Politics of the English Language, I had not previously read straight through before now, but I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard them quoted or referenced over my life.

            Besides that, I actually had a go at reading this book before.  Back in 2006, when I was killing time in Hita, I checked this book out of the Oita Prefectural Library.  If memory serves, it was a different edition—a different publisher’s introduction although mostly the same list of essays.  I didn’t read it cover to cover at the time—not because it was a difficult read, but because at the - time - Ihadmyreading - list - full - with - other - books, and I just used Orwell’s essays as some light breakfast reading—something to skim over in the morning as I had my coffee and cornflakes.
            Superficial though this skimming was, it did give me familiarity with many of these essays.  I at least knew what they were about even if I hadn’t thoroughly read them, and I have been able to reference them in the years since.  So when I reviewed Kim by Kipling, I could reference Orwell’s essay on Kipling.  And when I reviewed Charles Dickens, I could reference Orwell’s essay on Dickens.
            Others of these essays I have just stumbled upon over the years.  A while back, while randomly surfing the Internet, I came across Orwell’s essay: In Defence of P.G. Wodehouse.  I did not remember encountering this essay before, and had had no previous knowledge about the Wodehouse/Nazi controversy, but the essay was so well written that I got sucked into it anyway, and read the whole thing with pleasure, and then consequently linked to it off of this blog.

            So that’s my previous experience with these essays.  But now that I’ve finally gone and read this whole collection cover to cover, here is my official review:

The Review
          From front to back, every single one of these essays is a real pleasure to read.
            Orwell was a very talented writer, who had a gift for speaking very plainly and for writing in such a way that makes the reader want to follow his thought process.  Even when I disagreed with him, I understood very clearly what he was saying, and why he was saying it, and I felt happy just to be able to ride along with him as he explained his thoughts, whether I agreed with him or not.  (Most of the time I agreed with him though.)

            The essays fall into two categories: argumentative, and autobiographical.
            Essays like The Spike, A Hanging, Shooting an Elephant, Marrakech, How the Poor Die, and Such, Such Were the Joys are all autobiographical, and show that in addition to writing persuasive essays, Orwell has a real talent for story-telling. 
            Most of the rest of the essays are argumentative, although there often there is some mixture between the two.  Bookshop Memories, for example, combines Orwell’s personal reminisces of working in a second hand bookshop with his thoughts on the reading habits of the general public.

            As with the In Defence of P.G. Wodehouse essay I mentioned above, many of these essays were dealing with subjects that were completely unknown to me, and yet despite this I still enjoyed hearing Orwell’s thoughts and analysis on them.  (He’s a skilled enough essayist to quickly be able to tell the reader everything they need to know about the subject, so that they can then follow his critique of it.)  So, for example, the fact that I had never read any Henry Miller in my life did not stop me from enjoying Orwell’s analysis of Henry Miller in the essay Inside the Whale. 

            So, that’s my overall take on these essays in general.  I have several more random thoughts, which I’ll address below in no particular order.

Random Thoughts

Orwell’s Politics
          Orwell, as he makes clear in his essays about Tolstoy and Gandhi, disliked the cult of sainthood.
            It’s somewhat ironic then that he himself has posthumously gained the status of a secular saint.  He’s one of the few figures that are respected simultaneously by both the right and the left, so if you can manage to quote Orwell in support of your position, you’ve usually won the debate.

            Some people, aware only of his books like 1984 and Animal Farm are of the opinion he was simply a hard core anti-communist of the sort that would fit nicely into the cold warriors of the Republican Party.  I had teachers at school who were of this opinion (or at least, managed to convey this impression to me).
            In fact, Orwell remained a democratic socialist until the end of his life. 
            In conversations, I’ve learned some people are under the impression Orwell abandoned socialism after the Spanish Civil War, but this is not true.  He did become more critical of orthodox leftism after the Spanish Civil War (when he saw the orthodox leftist groups blindly repeat the propaganda about Spain which he personally knew to be false) but he never abandoned his belief in some sort of a democratic socialism, as a reading of these essays will make perfectly clear.  The Lion and the Unicorn, for example, written during World War II, lays out Orwell’s vision for a socialist transformation in England.

            But what is true about Orwell is that, particularly after the Spanish Civil War, he appears to have spent more time complaining about his fellow Leftists than about the Conservatives. 
            Many of Orwell’s essays seem to just take it for granted that Capitalism, Conservatism, Catholicism, Christianity and Imperialism are all wrong, and are so self-evidently wrong that they’re not worth even arguing against.  The people Orwell wants to write against then are the Left Book Club, and the British Communist Party.  It appears that these groups represent to him the more dangerous fallacies, because they are all the more potentially attractive to the modern intellectuals that Orwell mixes with. 

            And this, no doubt, is what makes Orwell so attractive to modern day conservatives.  He’s a socialist, but he’s a socialist who makes some very devastating critiques about his fellow leftists.

            This seems to have been at least partly a result of the times Orwell was living in.  In the 1930s communism was at the height of its appeal among the intellectual class—the class Orwell seems to have identified with.  (There was a large communist movement in the 1930s USA as well, but I got the impression that the Communist Party was even more popular in England at that time).  In England, all the intellectuals had already abandoned religion and nationalism and all gone over to Leftism, so there was probably little point in shrilly denouncing Religion or Imperialism—everyone else was already doing that.  So Orwell simply takes it for granted that no thinking man could have been a Christian or a Nationalist, and he chooses to spend his intellectual energy attacking the idiocies of the Left Book Club instead.  Had he lived in different times (say, in current day America) when this cultural consensus was not taking for granted, he may well have aimed his guns in a different direction.

            Orwell also saw clearly that the greatest danger to humanity during the 1930s and 40s was not the British Empire, but Stalinism and Fascism.  So he spent more time writing against Britain’s enemies than he did writing against the British Empire itself.  And in fact during this period, he appears to have spent much more time denouncing the pacifists who were refusing to fight for Britain than he did criticizing anything the British Empire did.  This also has no doubt made him extremely popular with British and American conservatives over the years, who are very happy to remember Orwell’s denunciations of Stalin and Hitler, and his criticism of pacifists, and tend to forget everything else he wrote.  (On a personal note, I should clarify that although I agree with Orwell much of the time, I consider myself a pacifist and so must part company with him on this issue.  Despite expressing some ambivalence a few posts back, I do generally believe that non-violent solutions are always possible, and always preferable to war.)

            Nevertheless, Orwell should never be mistaken for a conservative.  In his essay The Lion and the Unicorn, written during the middle of World War II, Orwell is in full support of the war effort, but he believes that the very reason England is prosecuting the war so poorly is because of capitalism.  Capitalism encourages private corporations to put their own interests ahead of the country’s, which is why, Orwell claims, private English corporations were still doing good business with Hitler, (and thus strengthening Hitler) even up to the moment war broke out, despite the fact that it was perfectly obvious that the war would happen.

Orwell on Religion
          My understanding is that early 20th Century Britain was dominated by a post-religious climate.  This is something I picked up in one of my college literature courses, where the professor told us it was taken for granted by the intellectuals that no serious person believed in religion anymore, and the challenge was not how to disprove religion, but how to make sense of life now that religion had been disproved.
            This seems to be the very much the climate in which Orwell himself is writing.  And in fact he himself says so explicitly often—at one point, for example, he says that if the economic basis for the Church of England were removed (unlike American churches, the Church of England is state supported), it would no doubt wither up and die of its own accord, so little does the average person care about it these days.

            Orwell therefore seems to take it for granted that no thinking person can be religious, and that religion is not even worth arguing about.  Religion does pop up in some of his essays, but almost always as an aside, and not as the main focus.  There are some references to Catholic intellectuals such as G.K. Chesterton, but the assumption is usual that Chesterton is obviously wrong, and can therefore just be used as a self-evident example of wrong-headed thinking.

            (Something Orwell and many of his contemporaries may not have anticipated is that religion never truly goes away, but rather swings in and out of fashion like a pendulum.  When there is too much religious dogma and superstitious mumbo-jumbo dominating the culture, people hunger for rationalism.  But when there is too much rationalism, people hunger for some deeper meaning in their life.  Orwell probably would not have anticipated the New Age spiritualism of the 1960s and 70s, or the revival of the religious right in the 1980s, or the rise of Islamic fundamentalism.  But it is perhaps unfair to criticize him for not having anticipated the future trends.)

            There are, however, one or two passages in which Orwell addresses religion.  From his essay describing his boyhood experiences in boarding school, Such, Such Were the Joys, Orwell writes of his early religious upbringing:
            “You were supposed to love God, and I did not question this.  Till the age of about fourteen I believed in God, and believed that the accounts given of him were true.  But I was well aware that I did not love him.  On the contrary, I hated him, just as I hated Jesus and the Hebrew patriarchs.  If I had sympathetic feelings towards any characters in the Old Testament, it was towards such people as Cain, Jezebel, Haman, Agag, Sisera; in the New Testament my friends, if any, were Ananias, Caiaphas, Judas and Pontius Pilate. But the whole business of religion seemed to be strewn with psychological impossibilities. The Prayer Book told you, for example, to love God and fear him: but how could you love someone whom you feared?”

            Some of Orwell’s thoughts on religion seem to have been picked up by Christopher Hitchens.  But more on that below.

Chomsky and Hitchens
          In an interview near the end of his life, after Christopher Hitchens had quarreled and publically fallen out with his old ally Chomsky, Hitchens was asked if he still thought there was anything good at all about Chomsky.
            Hitchens thought for a moment, and then answered that Chomsky still deserved praise for remembering the importance of Orwell even during a period when everyone else had forgotten about Orwell.

            Both Chomsky and Hitchens have often written and spoken about Orwell, and there are several similarities between Orwell and them.

On Chomsky
            Orwell has a view of media control that is very similar to Chomsky’s.  Like Chomsky, Orwell recognizes that the English media is biased without ever being corrupt—unlike some other countries, the English media never accepts any sort of money as an explicit quid pro quo.  However the English media is controlled by the business interests and the ruling classes, and the view of the world you get from reading the mainstream media is the view of the world that the business interests want you to see.
            In his essay Boys’ Weeklies, Orwell shows just how much bias there is even in the adventure stories written for young boys.  After analyzing the themes of these stories, Orwell writes: “Here is the stuff that is read somewhere between the ages of twelve and eighteen by a very large proportion, perhaps an actual majority, of English boys, including many who will never read anything else except newspapers; and along with it they are absorbing a set of beliefs which would be regarded as hopelessly out of date in the Central Office of the Conservative Party.  All the better because it is done indirectly, there is being pumped into them the conviction that the major problems of our time do not exist, that there is nothing wrong with laissez-faire capitalism, that foreigners are unimportant comics and that the British Empire is a sort of charity-concern that will last forever. Considering who owns these papers, it is difficult to believe that this is unintentional.  Of the twelve papers I have been discussing… seven are the property of the Amalgamated Press, which is one of the biggest press-combines in the world, and controls more than a hundred different newspapers.  [Boys weekly magazines like] The Gem and Magnet, therefore, are closely linked up with the Daily Telegraph and the Financial Times.  This in itself would be enough to rouse certain suspicious, even if it were not obvious that the stories in the boys’ weeklies are politically vetted.  So it appears that if you feel the need of a fantasy-life in which you travel to Mars and fight lions bare-handed (and what boy doesn’t?) you can only have it by delivering yourself over, mentally, to people like Lord Camrose [W]. For there is no competition.  Throughout the whole of this run of papers the differences are negligible, and on this level no others exist.  This raises the question, why is there no such thing as a left-wing boys’ paper?.

            (Chomsky is also, like Orwell, not a pacifist, so Orwell’s repeated attacks on the pacifistic left is presumably less of a problem for Chomsky than it is for someone like me.)

On Hitchens
          In many ways, Orwell are Christopher Hitchens shared similar trajectories.  Like Orwell, Hicthens was solidly on the left, but is perhaps most famous for his critiques of his fellow leftists.  Like Orwell, Hitchens spent a lot of time criticizing the Pacifistic Left because they did not support a war that he believed needed to be fought.

            As I wrote above, writing against religion did not seem to be a major concern to Orwell.  However there are one or two arguments that he makes that are similar to Hitchens.  Hitchens wrote extensively on Orwell (A), and I half suspect he may have been influenced by Orwell’s writings on one or two points about religion (just as I suspect Hitchens borrowed points from Thomas Paine).
            In his debates against Christian theists, Hitchens was often confronted with the fact that secular regimes such as Hitler, Stalin, and North Korea are often no better, if not worse, than the tyranny of the old religious regimes.  To which Hitchens always responded that the cult of Stalin and Kim Jong-Il were, properly understood, not secular regimes at all but rather theocracies. 
            The point appears to have come from Orwell.  Orwell writes that the constant re-writing of history in the Soviet Union to make it appear that Stalin was always right and always prescient was much worse than any tyranny of the past, and can only longer even be called a tyranny, but is in fact a theocracy, in which Stalin must at all times appear to have God-like powers of infallibility.
            Also, Hitchens used to often say that whatever people claimed to believe about the next world, it was very obvious that most people, religious or not, seemed to want wealth, success, prestige and power in this world, and not the next one.  Again, the point appears to have come from Orwell, who writes a few different times that any time people are faced with a choice between this world and the next world, they invariably choose this world, regardless of whatever they may say they believe about heaven and hell.

            And there is at least one more point of similarity.  Whenever atheists like Dawkins or Hitchens attempt to use science to disprove the existence of God or the soul, Christian apologists will reply that science and religion exist in separate non-overlapping magisteria (W).  The debate about non-overlapping magisterial appears to go back all the way to Orwell’s time, because he references it in a somewhat mocking tone.  In Orwell’s examination of Gulliver’s Travels in his essay Politics vs Literature, Orwell examines Swift’s claim that politics and science should be kept strictly apart, and makes an analogy to the current debate about non-overlapping magisteria.
            Is there not something familiar in that phrase [from Jonathon Swift] ‘I could never discover the least analogy between the two sciences’?  It has precisely the note of the popular Catholic apologists who profess to be astonished when a scientist utters an opinion on the existence of God or the immortality of the soul. The scientist, we are told, is an expert only in one restricted field: why should his opinions be of value in any other?  The implication is that theology is just as much an exact science as, for instance, chemistry, and that the priest is also an expert whose conclusions on certain subjects must be accepted.
            (The above quotation, by the way, is a good example of how Orwell writes about religion.  It’s not even his main point, just an aside in a longer point about Swift’s views on politics and science, and he cites the argument of the Catholic apologists as something that is considered self-evidently absurd and so doesn’t even warrant a rebuttal.)

The Sporting Spirit
            I am always amazed when I hear people saying that sport creates goodwill between the nations, and that if the common peoples of the world would meet one another at a football or cricket, they would have no inclination to meet on the battlefield.  Even if one didn’t know from concrete examples (the 1936 Olympic Games for instance) that international sporting contests lead to orgies of hatred, one could deduce it from general principles.
            (Actually the whole essay is worth reading, but that quote gives you a taste.)

Notes on Nationalism
          Orwell’s essay Notes on Nationalism should be required reading for everyone.  [READ IT HERE].  I had to read Shooting an Elephant for high school, which was also good—don’t get me wrong—but imagine how much better the world would be if every high school student also had to read Notes on Nationalism.  Imagine how much more productive our political dialogue would be if everyone was familiar with this essay.

Rudyard Kipling
          As I mentioned above, I had come across Orwell’s essay on Rudyard Kipling before now.  And for some reason Orwell’s lines about Malaya stuck in my head long after reading the essay:
            He [Kipling] could not foresee, therefore, that the same motives which bought the Empire into existence would end by destroying it.  It was the same motive, for example, that caused the Malayan jungle to be cleared for rubber estates, and which now caused those estates to be handed over intact to the Japanese. 
            This gave me the idea of Malaysia as the land of colonial era rubber plantations, and when I went on my trip to Malaysia a couple years ago, I kept my eyes peeled the whole time for rubber plantations.
            To my disappointment, I didn’t see many.  Palm oil plantations seem to have taken over as the cash crop of choice in Malaysia.

Politics and the English Language
          Although not specifically written for academia, Orwell’s critique of writers who are always deliberately making their writing as hard to understand as possible definitely applies as much to academia as to anything else.  I experienced a lot of frustration in graduate school struggling with academic journals which were deliberately written in a style that was specifically designed to be inaccessible to novices and lay people, and I suspect this is a common frustration for people in graduate school in any field.

            However I suppose people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. The other half of Politics and the English Language is a critique of writers who are overly reliant an easy clichés instead of really thinking about what it is they want to say.  My own writing (by which I mean blogging) is definitely guilty of this.

Charles Dickens
            Although I’ve already mentioned the essay on Dickens, I should add that despite all the times I read A Tale of Two Cities, I never really clearly understood the politics of it until I read Orwell’s essay on Dickens.  (Although in retrospect it now seems very obvious.)

Wells, Hitler and the World State
          Since I recently blogged about H.G. Wells, it’s perhaps worth mentioning here that Orwell, or at least the young Orwell, was a huge fan of H.G. Wells.
            The only essay on Wells included in this collection, Wells, Hitler and the World State is critical of Wells, but then near the end of the essay, Orwell confesses what a huge impact H.G. Wells had had on him when he was younger.

But is it not a sort of parricide for a person of my age (thirty-eight) to find fault with H.G. Wells? Thinking people who were born about the beginning of this century are in some sense Wells's own creation. How much influence any mere writer has, and especially a ‘popular’ writer whose work takes effect quickly, is questionable, but I doubt whether anyone who was writing books between 1900 and 1920, at any rate in the English language, influenced the young so much. The minds of all of us, and therefore the physical world, would be perceptibly different if Wells had never existed. Only, just the singleness of mind, the one-sided imagination that made him seem like an inspired prophet in the Edwardian age, make him a shallow, inadequate thinker now. When Wells was young, the antithesis between science and reaction was not false. Society was ruled by narrow-minded, profoundly incurious people, predatory business men, dull squires, bishops, politicians who could quote Horace but had never heard of algebra. Science was faintly disreputable and religious belief obligatory. Traditionalism, stupidity, snobbishness, patriotism, superstition and love of war seemed to be all on the same side; there was need of someone who could state the opposite point of view. Back in the nineteen-hundreds it was a wonderful experience for a boy to discover H. G. Wells. There you were, in a world of pedants, clergymen and golfers, with your future employers exhorting you to ‘get on or get out,’ your parents systematically warping your sexual life, and your dull-witted schoolmasters sniggering over their Latin tags; and here was this wonderful man who could tell you about the inhabitants of the planets and the bottom of the sea, and who knew that the future was not going to be what respectable people imagined. A decade or so before aeroplanes were technically feasible Wells knew that within a little while men would be able to fly. He knew that because he himself wanted to be able to fly, and therefore felt sure that research in that direction would continue. On the other hand, even when I was a little boy, at a time when the Wright brothers had actually lifted their machine off the ground for fifty-nine seconds, the generally accepted opinion was that if God had meant us to fly He would have given us wings. Up to 1914 Wells was in the main a true prophet. In physical details his vision of the new world has been fulfilled to a surprising extent.

            I suspect this refers more to H.G. Wells utopian novels instead of the horror novels I am more familiar with like The Time Machine, and War of the Worlds, and The Invisible Man.  Still, it’s high praise indeed.

Conversations with Other People About Orwell
          English book stores here in Southeast Asia  are mostly second hand, but there are a few reliable bestsellers—books that Westerners can always be counted on to buy—that the bookstores here find economical always keep their shelves stocked with by photocopy and reproducing multiple copies.  Orwell’s collection of essays is one of those books.
            Which is to say, it turns out a lot of people besides just me are reading this book.
            And in fact, a lot of my friends and co-workers over here have already read, or are reading through, Orwell’s essays, and I got into some interesting discussions with some people.
            One friend, an American of South Asian descent, said that he liked Orwell because no contemporary Western writer had understood imperialism as well as Orwell.
            I’m not sure I’d go that far myself.  (By the 1930s, it had already becoming popular for Western Leftist intellectuals to denounce imperialism.  Few of these people wrote as elegantly as Orwell, so few of them are remembered today, but Orwell was certainly not the only person of his time who understood the evils of imperialism.)
            But it can be said perhaps that few people wrote about the problems of imperialism as elegantly as Orwell did.  His essay Shooting an Elephant is a very well written story about the relationship between the natives and the imperial soldier.
            Also the essay Marrakech.  Orwell, in the French colony of Marrakech, sees the native soldiers march by (that is, African natives who had been conscripted into the French army).  He writes: “As they went past a tall, very young Negro turned and caught my eye. But the look he gave me was not in the least the kind of look you might expect. Not hostile, not contemptuous, not sullen, not even inquisitive.  It was the shy, wide-eyed Negro look, which actually is a look of profound respect.  I saw how it was.  This wretched boy, who is a French citizen and has therefore been dragged from the forest to scrub floors and catch syphilis in garrison towns, actually has feelings of reverence before a white skin.  He has been taught that the white race are his master, and he still believes it.
            But there is one thought which every white man (and in this connection it doesn’t matter two pence if he calls himself a Socialist) thinks when he sees a black army marching past. “How much longer can we go on kidding these people? How long before they turn their guns in the other direction?”

            Another friend and co-worker of mine told me how he used to teach Orwell’s essays in China.  His advanced English class, he told me, was getting bored with their regular textbook, and so he gave them a copy of Orwell’s A Hanging and told them to read that instead.  He said it blew their minds, and they came back to class the next day with a completely new perspective on what was possible to say in the English language, and what they could gain from studying it.

            I thought about that story often as I was reading through this book of essays.  Most of my students here in Southeast Asia are studying English so they can go pass proficiency tests, or go into business, or something boring like that. But if English has already become the new global language, then one would hope that would mean more than simply the spread of laissez-faire capitalism, but also the spread of authors like Orwell.  If I justify to myself at all my job as an English teacher, I tell myself I’m (hopefully) giving my students access to Orwell and Chomsky instead of just to international capitalism.

            However, against this optimism, I am reminded of how unpopular and unknown Orwell was in Japan.

            Just about all of the Western literary canon is well known and popular in Japan.  (It must be admitted that in Japan they’re much better at learning our classic books than we are at learning theirs.)  But the fact that so much of the Western canon is well known in Japan makes the few exceptions all the more glaring.  After a while in Japan, I got so used to name dropping Western authors that I stopped thinking about it and just took it for granted all the Western authors were well known.  But one day I mentioned Orwell, only to discover my Japanese friends had no idea who I was talking about.  I repeated the experiment a couple other times with different sets of friends.  I’m sure you could find Orwell has been translated at one point, and I’m sure you could find his books somewhere in the library, but for all practical purposes Orwell was unknown in Japan.

            When Murakami Haruki’s book 1Q84 came out in Japan a few years ago (and it’s always an event in Japan when a new Murakami Haruki book comes out) I hoped the direct reference in the title to 1984 would spark an interest in Orwell.  (In Japanese “Q” and “9” are pronounced the same, so the reference is even clearer in Japanese.)  But it didn’t seem to happen.

            This made me wonder: Is Orwell not as universally accessible as I thought he was?  Are all of his observations locked inside an Anglo-Saxon view of the world, that doesn’t translate across cultures?  When I thought about it, I decided that perhaps more of Orwell than I remembered was actually a commentary on Anglo-Saxon culture and politics, and not universal.

            Or perhaps he just never got the right translator in Japan.  Maybe someday he’ll catch on.

On Orwell’s Survival
          Speaking of Christopher Hitchens, in her obituary on Hitchens, Katha Pollit speculated on how well Hitchens’ writings would survive into the future, and said: Posterity isn’t kind to columnists and essayists and book reviewers, even the best ones. I doubt we’d be reading much of Orwell’s nonfiction now had he not written the indelible novels 1984 and Animal Farm. [LINK HERE]

            It’s an interesting question.  Would Orwell’s essays have survived (survived in the sense of still being widely read) if it wasn’t for his novels?  Certainly these well written essays deserve to have survived regardless.  But then, as Client Eastwood would say, deserve’s got nothing to do with it.
            However, I think a good rebuttal to Katha Pollit is offered over here [LINK HERE]

Boys’ Weeklies
          The essay Boys’ Weeklies was interesting.  At first I was worried I would find the essay confusing, because all the Boys’ Weekly magazines that Orwell was describing have long ago faded into obscurity.  But like all of his essay, Orwell does a very good job of bringing the reader up to speed, and describing what he is going to critique before he critiques it.
            Being a geek myself, I was half captivated by the world of Boy’s Weekly magazines Orwell was critiquing, even though Orwell’s purpose was not to praise them.  It’s a little glimpse into pop culture of the 1930s that has long ago faded from cultural memory.
            The weekly stories about the “Greyfriars” school, for example, which apparently was a huge cultural phenomenon in the pulp magazines of England from the 1910s through the 1930s, fascinated me.  (Orwell claims they are half inspired by Tom Brown’s Schooldays).
            I went online to see if I could find any of these old stories archived.  Wikipedia does actually have a half-decent article on this old series (W), but I can’t find any of the old pulp stories themselves.  In a world where it seems like anything and everything is up on the Internet, sometimes it’s easy to forget how much of pop culture has dropped off the face of the earth.  (Any pop culture phenomenon that arrived after the birth of the Internet is of course extremely well documented on-line.  And any pop culture phenomenon that was before the Internet, but still within living memory of the Internet’s users, is well documented by the Internet Nostalgia Critics [EXAMPLE—THIS GUY HERE].  But once you start going back to before the living memory of the Internet’s Users, most of this stuff appears to have just vanished.)

* [Update--just noticed now that the wikipedia article contains a link to the reply from the author of Greyfriars to George Orwell.  LINK HERE ]

Other Notes
* Orwell was a very prolific reader—much more of a reader than I’ll ever be.  He appears to have read anything and everything.  When Orwell reviews a writer like Kipling or Dickens, he appears to know their whole catalogue by heart.  Orwell claims he read all of Gulliver’s Travels in one day when he was 7.  I can barely read Gulliver’s Travels now.  (Some of it was assigned for one of my college literature classes, but I struggled with it.)
            I, by contrast, am a much slower reader.  If you follow this book review project regularly, you’ll know I average about one book a month.  And I’m continually in awe of people who manage to read much more than that.

* Orwell does not appear to have been a fan of J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan.  He doesn’t go into any detail, but in an offhanded way he’ll sometimes mention Peter Pan as an example of popular trashy literature.
            This is yet another area where I’m going to have to part company with Orwell.  I love the humor in Peter Pan. 

* There’s a lot more to say about these essays.  So far I’ve only commented on a handful of the essays in this collection, but if I sit here and write about every essay, I’ll be here forever.  So this is probably as good as place as any to call it quits for this review.

Link of the Day
Propaganda Systems: Orwell's and Ours by Noam Chomsky


dpreimer said...

Wow, what a selection. In the '80s I had to cherry-pick through his collected essays, and though the man wrote engagingly, he wrote a lot, and there were heaps of political columns that made little sense if you didn't have a program to tell the players from the refs (I was taking a history of the Cold War, and even then had trouble). I'd say the editor on this book did a superlative job. In fact, I might just bring this home some day...

The comment about the fiction supporting the essays is, I think, spot on. It helped that the fiction was a fitting allegory for the times. But I think fiction, when it works, woos in ways an essay never can. And Orwell's works very well. I can still remember exactly where I was when I read 1984: sick in bed, at home, away from my grade 9 classroom. I can remember how my bedroom smelled. I don't get that sort of recollection happening when I think back to essays like "Good Bad Books."

Joel Swagman said...

There were one or two essays missing from this collection that I would have liked to read: Orwell's essay on Mark Twain, and "You and the Atomic Bomb". (Although since these essays are freely available on the Internet anyway, I suppose it's not that big of a deal, but I would have liked them in the same paperback volume.)

I agree, 1984 evokes emotions that "Good Bad Books" can not.
Some of Orwell's autobiographical essays, however, like "A Hanging" or "Shooting an Elephant" are probably on par with his fiction in terms of their impact. But of both fiction and autobiography share the narrative form, so perhaps the comparison is not valid. (Actually I left this out of my review, but the publisher's introduction raised some doubt as to how authentic the autobiographical essays were. Some people are of the opinion they may be fictionalized versions of reality rather than authentic reporting. But lacking any concrete proof otherwise, I prefer to believe the essays are all authentic.)